This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
CANNES, France -- As the world's most prestigious film festival drew to a close Sunday, the 2012 awards picture remains nearly as much of a mystery as it was when Cannes began.
In contrast to 2011, when films such as "The Artist" and "The Tree of Life" established themselves as best-picture contenders on the Croisette, this year's edition of the festival offered only small hints of the season to come.
Gaining the biggest foothold -- and offering the most intriguing questions -- was "Amour," Michael Haneke's examination of an elderly man who must care for his wife after she becomes the victim of a stroke.
PHOTOS: Cannes 2012
Sony Pictures Classics plans to release the movie this year and would be justified in holding hopes for major Oscar consideration. The French-language film garnered critical raves and standing ovations here, and on Sunday capped off its magic run by winning the Palme d'Or, Cannes' top prize. The movie tells a universally human story and centers on older people, which some pundits believe is an advantage with Oscar voters.
But a place in the best-picture hunt is far from a sure thing. Foreign-language titles are a tough sell to the entirety of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the top prize. Indeed, Haneke's last film, the German-language period drama "The White Ribbon," won the Palme d’Or as well but was only nominated in the Oscar foreign-language category and didn’t win.
"Amour" could well score acting nominations for its two leads, the octogenarians Jean-Louis Tringitgnant and Emanuelle Riva. Holding almost iconic status in France, the elderly actors return to the screen for the first time in years, giving raved-about performances and offering a compelling back story that rivals anything in "The Artist" (and just as many spelling challenges).
A number of other actors established themselves as contenders at Cannes. The events of the last 12 days made it clear we should probably keep an eye out for Garrett Hedlund, who plays Dean Moriarty in "On the Road," as he takes a significant leap from his "Tron" days. "No" star Gael Garcia Bernal could also be in the conversation as an advertising executive called on to run a political campaign against Augusto Pinochet in 1980s Chile (the Spanish-language film also has a strong shot at a foreign-language Oscar nomination).
The X factor on the actor side is Matthew McConaughey, who dazzled as an enigmatic homeless man in Jeff Nichols' well-received "Mud." But the film will need to score a U.S. distribution deal first.
The festival was useful at helping awards watchers cross a few movies off their list -- at least in pencil. Although it's very early and things could yet turn around, the kind of talk garnered by "Lawless," the John Hillcoat bootlegging drama starring Shia LaBeouf that the Weinstein Co. will open at the end of August, doesn't at this point suggest a major Oscar run, though if any executive could reverse that, it's Harvey Weinstein.
And anyone banking on a Lee Daniels return to the Oscar podium will probably want to shelve those thoughts. The director’s follow-up to "Precious" drew a large number of negative reviews and reactions, as did fellow English-language pic "Cosmopolis." Neither film comes out of the festival with much momentum.
Meanwhile, Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" could seek to take a page from the playbook of "Midnight in Paris," which was nominated for a best-picture Oscar and a bevy of other awards. Like that film, "Moonrise" opened Cannes and represents a director's feel-good switch. But to get that kind of attention, it would probably have to start approaching "Midnight"-level box office.
Finally, there's Brad Pitt's "Killing Them Softly." The Andrew Dominik-directed hit-man picture garnered respectable reviews and comes after two Oscar nominations for the actor's and director's previous collaboration, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Will the genre picture have a shot? It could at least be a factor on the performance side, with Scoop McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn joining Pitt in drawing acclaim.
For the Record, 3:21 a.m. May 29: An earlier version of this post suggested that "Cosmopolis" did not have U.S. distribution. It has landed a deal from eOne.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "Amour." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics